Vivekananda and Sai
The events that I’m reporting in this account took place in the mid 80’s at Prashanti Nilayam. I was sitting in my usual place on the Mandir veranda, and I noticed a number of times on days before a major holiday, that Swami seemed to be visibly anticipating the prospect of meeting a special visitor that day. I remember on those days he would say to a retired senior congressman who was sitting on the veranda close to where I sat, “Narendra is coming!” But then the holiday went by, and there was no further reference to Narendra having come. Over time it came out that Narendra was a young man, a Sai devotee from Sri Lanka, who had not come to visit as yet because he was prevented from leaving his country as long as he was subject to being called up for army service in his homeland. Who he was and why Swami seemed so much interested in seeing this man was not known.
One day a large group of Sri Lankan devotees from Colombo came to the ashram. That day, smiling, Baba announced to the congressman that Narendra had come, since he was now able to travel abroad. Then Baba went out to give darshan, and he picked the Sri Lankan group for interview. They came and sat in the sand, just off the veranda. They were a beautiful group, all dressed in immaculate whites, the ladies in matching white saris, the gents in matching white kurtas and dhotis. Sitting there in neat rows, it looked like they were all praying, with their heads lowered and remaining totally quiet, making no contact with each other. I hadn’t seen many groups who while waiting for Swami to finish darshan, remained so well-behaved.
When Swami returned to the Mandir he again came by and stopped to speak to the Congressman and beaming, said “Narendra is here!”. The Congressman asked Swami, “Who is this Narendra?” and Swami answered, “In his last life he was the favorite disciple of Sri Ramakrishna; when he took sanyasa and became a monk, he took the name Vivekananda, and that is how he has been known since.” Swami explained that Vivekananda had started the Ramakrishna Math and did some very good work in making the Indian dharma known in the world. After he left his body, he was reborn in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to the same mother, affectionately called Sri Devi, that he had had in his previous life, and who had also been reborn in Sri Lanka and been drawn to Swami. Swami mentioned that this young Narendra was conversant only with the Sri Lankan language, Sinhalese, But, Baba added, that whenever Baba gave a public discourse in Prashanti Nilayam, Narendra would get up at the Sai Center in Colombo and deliver Swami’s discourse in Sinhalese to the gathered devotees there.
Having spoken to us on the veranda, Baba went on to enter his interview room and usher the Sri Lankan group inside. As they filed in I noticed one tall, strikingly handsome young man, who, even when seen from a distance of 25 feet or so, was notably shaking, bent forward, hands folded in a posture of devotion, and totally overcome by the magnitude of the moment. Was this beautiful guy the Narendra that Swami was talking about? After about 50 minutes, Baba’s interview room door opened again and the Sri Lankans came out beaming. They were all talking to each other, smiling, laughing. They clearly had had a wonderful time with Baba. I didn’t see the young man come out with the group. But Baba came out with a big smile on his lovely face and headed straight towards us, where the congressman and I were sitting on the veranda. Swami was obviously visibly happy. Before saying anything to the congressman, he stood for a moment by us, looking back towards the Sri Lankans coming out of the interview room, who at this point were splitting into two groups, ladies and gents, who filed back to their respective darshan places. Swami noticed that Narendra was not among them, and so it became obvious that Narendra must still be in the interview room. Swami went back into the room to look for him.
A few moments later Baba came out of the room leading this young man towards us. The chap was clearly overcome with emotions, As he walked out of the room holding on to Baba’s hand, he was shedding tears of uncontainable feelings that kept streaming down his face. When Baba stopped near us, the boy sat down on the floor facing him, his eyes closed, his chest heaving in deep breaths. Baba announced to the congressman (and peripherally to me, being seated nearby in direct earshot), “This is Narendra, the Vivekananda of yesteryear reborn.” The boy didn’t move. As best as I can remember now, a conversation followed between Baba and the Congressman relating to Vivekananda, which I had never seen published elsewhere. The boy took no part in this dialog, but just remained unmoving, deeply inner-absorbed, sitting on the ground with his hands holding on to Baba’s feet.
The Congressman asked Swami, “Bhagavan, most people believe that Vivekananda had become totally awakened under the tutelage of his satguru, Sri Ramakrishna. Then why did he have to be reborn?” Paraphrasing Swami’s answer, as best as I can recall, Swami said, “Unlike his brother disciple, Brahmananda, who had reached nirvikalpa samadhi and attained mukti, Narendra was still bothered by some ego thoughts. He harbored many doubts about his guru. Before coming to Ramakrishna as a young man, he was active with the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta, a group of intellectuals who had strayed away from the Vedic traditions and practices. They saw Ramakrishna as a simple Brahmin priest caught up in all kinds of superstitions. They urged Narendra to leave Ramakrishna. And so one day he ran away, left the ashram and returned to his mother’s house in Calcutta, with no thought of returning.
“But his mother was crestfallen that Narendra had left his saintly guru, who she regarded as God Himself. She prevailed on Narendra to reexamine his ‘disgraceful actions’. Day after day she strongly urged him to return to Ramakrishna. After some months steeped in misery, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake. So he left Calcutta and returned to Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar, to beg his guru for forgiveness and to take him back. But, in the meantime, Ramakrishna, having felt a shock from the sudden departure of his beloved disciple Naren, as he called him, experienced a worsening of his cancer, and he chose to make maha-samadhi and permanently leave his body. All this happened before Narendra returned to Ramakrishna’s place. When Narendra came to Dakshineswar he discovered that his guru was gone. Narendra was overwhelmed with sorrow and mourning.
“Realizing the great extend of his loss he blamed himself for having fallen so low to precipitously and defiantly leave this great saint without permission, without an expression of gratitude, or even a goodbye. He sat down at the Ramakrishna cremation site, where only the smoldering ashes and a small partially burned bone of his beloved guru, were left. For days he remained there, overcome with deep remorse, fervently worshipping that little bone, and feeling so disappointed with himself for his unfortunate state.” Swami said, “He could have had his live guru, who loved him so much; but now, instead, all that was left for him was this charred piece of bone from Ramakrishna’s body.” Swami added, “Because he had had doubts about his guru, had left his guru, and then had continued to harbor unresolved regrets and anger towards himself, he could not achieve his highest goal in that lifetime.”
Parenthetically, I remember another time, when Baba referred to Narendra’s anger, speaking of it as an unfortunate aspect of Narendra’s nature that Ramakrishna attempted to heal. In this connection Swami told a story of Brahmananda and Vivekananda. Their nature was very different. Brahmananda, whose earlier premonastic name was Rakhal, had a mild, gentle, introverted (satvic) demeanor. On the other hand, Vivekananda, whose earlier premonastic name was Narendra, had a friendly, out-going, extroverted (rajasic) demeanor. They were both good students, exceptionally bright, and excellent candidates for the highest teachings. But Rakhal (Brahmananda) had a tendency to excessive shyness, becoming withdrawn and lacking self-confidence, which can be a negative hindrance to spiritual development. Vivekanada (Narendra) had a tendency towards becoming arrogant and quick to anger when questioned or criticized, which was also a negative hindrance to spiritual advancement. In other words, these two disciples with polar opposite outer natures, were both burdened by occasional negative tendencies. Ramakrishna considered them both as his ‘spiritual sons’ and resolved to reveal to them these negative tendencies in their own natures which were impeding their spiritual advancement, Ramakrishna had a plan. Knowing the unfriendly, coarse nature of the local ferry boat man, Ramakrishna sent these two disciples individually on errands, Narendra (Vivekananda) on one day, Rakhal (Brahmananda) on the next day, to purchase supplies in the bazaar across the river, taking the ferry boat across.
Narendra (Vivekananda) went first on his trip. When he returned the master asked him to describe what he experienced on his trip in the ferry boat. Narendra said the ferry boat man immediately concluded from the garments Narendra was wearing that he was with that ‘crazy priest in the temple across the river’, and he started berating Ramakrishna with an endless supply of invectives. On the out-going journey Narendra became angry and launched into a heated defense of his guru, using some strong language of his own. When the boatman picked up the same negative theme on the return trip, Vivekananda (that is Narendra) got so worked up he was ready to physically throw the man out of the boat into the river. When Ramakrishna heard this account he was deeply disappointed and furious at Narendra. He shouted, “I will not have a madman like you here. I don’t want your defense of my good name. Your temper is totally unacceptable. If you cannot be self-controlled and speak obligingly to others, you don’t belong here. Get out of this temple NOW! You don’t represent what we teach here.” Deeply affected, Narendra left the compound and sat down on the sand outside, devastated by what had just transpired.
The next day Rakhal (Brahmananda), went on his trip. When he returned, the guru asked him to describe his ferry boat experience. Rakhal, who had not seen Narendra since early the previous day, nor had been privy to the interchange between the guru and Narendra, confessed that the boat trip had been very difficult for him. In the boat he tried to meditate and pay no attention to outer distractions, but the boatman entertained himself by taunting Rakhal, both on the initial crossing and on the return trip, cracking off-color jokes and casting aspersions on Ramakrishna and his disciples, making fun of their beliefs. Rakhal said nothing, but feeling terrified he just bore the cascade of invectives, slinking into himself in the boat. When Ramakrishna heard this account he became indignant and furious at Rakhal. He shouted, “I will not have a frightened mouse as my sishya. How can you let others berate your guru and your brother disciples, without standing up to defend their honor? The spiritual path is one of heroes not zeroes. Get out of my sight NOW! You are not fit to be here!” Totally humiliated and defeated, Brahmanada left the ashram.
Outside, he discovered his fellow disciple Narendra sitting bereft in the sand. He had been thrown out the previous day. When they compared notes of their most recent encounters with their master, they quickly realized what Ramakrishna was up to, and their deflated morale was instantly buoyed. They went inside the temple, walked up to Ramakrishna, fell at his feet in gratitude, and thanked him for his powerful lesson of tough love.
Let us return now to the Narendra/Vivekananda story that Swami was telling the congressman on the veranda, with Narendra sitting motionless, eyes closed, self-absorbed, holding on to Baba’s feet. Swami said, “After his guru’s maha-samadhi, Narendra resolved to use all his energy and strength to make the Vedanta teachings known throughout the rest of the world. He started the Ramakrishna Mission, formalized the monastery and swore in over a dozen young monks, including himself and Rakhal (Brahmananda), each taking monastic names, (that’s when he became Vivekananda), and each dedicated their lives in service to God. Vivekananda sent his brother monks out into the world, to preach, write and advance the non-dualistic teachings, just as Ramakrishna had prepared him to do.”
Swami said that the reborn Narendra sitting at his feet would carry on this mission, but he would now be fully under Baba’s direction. Swami mentioned that he will have to shield Narendra from being pestered by devotees when they find out his Vivekananda history, but that for the moment, Narendra needed to return and be with his mother and the Sri Lankan devotees. After saying this, Swami, with a few loving, gracious pats on Narendra’s shoulder and with gentle words of encouragement, sent the boy off the veranda, to return to the darshan line. And then Swami went on into the mandir, and this episode of Swami and Narendra/Vivekananda that I witnessed, was concluded. Although it was believed that Vivekananda-reborn remained with Swami in Prashanti Nilayam for some weeks after that, he was not seen again in public after that day. (Howard Murphet later interviewed the lad and reported that Baba told Narendra that he would come live in Prashanti Nilayam in 2021.)
I want to apologize to the readers for taking such a long time to finally realize that the happenings of that day may be of considerable interest to Sai devotees, and I could well have reported this many years earlier. Unfortunately, now, the crystal-clear memory of these decades-ago events have become somewhat dim in this octogenarian’s head, and I cannot be sure if a number of details have been left out or gotten unexpectedly scrambled in this account. If such be the case, please forgive.
Al Drucker, March 2015